Race for Minnesota GOP Party chair turns acrimonious ahead of Saturday vote

Jennifer Carnahan is running for a third term and faces a challenger, state Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch

By: - April 9, 2021 6:00 am

Left, Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan looks on during the national anthem during a rally for President Donald Trump at the Bemidji Regional Airport on September 18, 2020 in Bemidji, Minnesota. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images. Right, state Sen. Mark Koran. Photo courtesy of Mark Koran for MNGOP Chair.

Minnesota Republicans on Saturday will vote on whether to give current party Chair Jennifer Carnahan a third term or elect a challenger, state Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, to lead the party heading into next year’s gubernatorial race. 

The winner of the race will lead the state party’s effort to break a 15-year losing streak of statewide races. All 201 legislative seats will also be up for election following redistricting, the once-in-a-decade remaking of legislative and congressional district maps based on new census data. 

In recent weeks, the race has turned markedly personal, with accusations of mudslinging and the public airing of internal party disputes and allegations of financial mismanagement. 

Carnahan, the first woman of color to lead the Minnesota Republican Party, is an adoptee from South Korea who was raised in Minnesota. She has previously run for a Minneapolis-area state senate seat, but lost in the DFL-heavy district. Carnahan owns a boutique retail store in Nisswa, and she was first elected chair in 2017 as a relative newcomer to Minnesota politics. 

Koran, 57, is serving his second term in the Minnesota Senate. He announced his candidacy late last year, using the slogan “Leadership without drama,” an apparent reference to some of the conflicts that have absorbed Carnahan and played out on social media. 

The race for party chair has included dustups, including an allegation from Carnahan that Koran and another GOP party activist made fun of a personal story she shared at an event recounting discrimination she has faced as an Asian-American woman. 

She sent an email to Republicans accusing Koran of crossing “a conduct and human decency line.”

Koran disputes he did anything disrespectful. 

In an email to the Reformer, Carnahan criticized Koran further.

“The disparaging and desperate attacks from my opponent’s failing campaign have reached a new level of low,” Carnahan said. “Our party is better than this, and our State Central Committee can see through the dishonesty and mudslinging from Sen. Mark Koran, tactics usually reserved for the Democrats.”

Carnahan’s record

In her two terms as party chair, Carnahan has been a constant presence in Minnesota politics, taking a much higher-profile role than some of her predecessors. 

Her supporters credit her turnaround of the state party’s finances, which was once heavily in debt. 

Carnahan said the party’s debts were retired a little more than a year ago, and that she has brought in more than $20 million in revenues and transfers. 

In four years of Carnahan’s leadership, her electoral record has been mixed. Minnesota Republicans were swept in the 2018 election in statewide races and lost the majority in the Minnesota House. They have lost two suburban seats in the U.S. House but picked up three in greater Minnesota, including a victory by Carnahan’s husband, Rep. Jim Hagedorn. 

In 2020, they fell short of winning the state for former President Donald Trump. They held their majority in the state Senate, however, and cut into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party’s House majority, winning back five seats. 

Carnahan’s profile was boosted last year after the Trump campaign spent considerable time and resources in Minnesota, hoping to win a state he came close to winning in 2016. 

“I’m proud of our record of accomplishments and growth brought to our organization,” Carnahan said.

Former GOP House candidate Andrew Myers, a voting delegate, said in an interview that he supported Carnahan, crediting her for working hard on behalf of candidates like himself. 

He said he has been impressed with her work ethic and strategy. “She’s been executing on her plans, and that’s what we need.” 

Still, a number of GOP activists, including members of the state party’s executive committee, have recently endorsed Koran, criticizing what they call a lack of transparency in the party’s finances. 

Among them are former RNC Committeewoman Janet Beihoffer and Gary Steuart, a member of the executive committee. An email from National Committeeman Max Rymer was made public among GOP activists, accusing Carnahan of being financially negligent about steep commissions charged by WinRed, a GOP fundraising platform. 

Rymer accused Carnahan of disparaging his reputation when she raised the issue with officials from the Republican National Committee.

Asked to respond to the allegations, Carnahan wrote: “Sadly, Mr. Rymer has made defamatory accusations in an attempt to tarnish my reputation, and that of the MN GOP and one of our vendors; as have other past party officers and supporters of my opponent’s campaign.”

She added: “I will continue to lead with truth, transparency, integrity and professionalism to ensure our organization is strong and set up for success in 2022.”

Koran hopes to lead party 

Heading into Saturday’s election for party chair, Koran’s pitch has been to sell voting delegates on a plan to expand the party’s coalition to be able to win the governorship. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who was reelected in 2006, is the Republican to win a statewide race. 

“We’re nothing without the grassroots and all of the organizations who support us,” Koran said. “We have fewer organizations now working in conjunction with the GOP than we had four years ago. How can you survive when you have fewer people who share our values?”

One way, Koran says, is by working to win over immigrant communities in the state. He says immigrant communities are not monolithic and would respond well to a Republican message, particularly on policing. 

“I’m born and raised in St. Paul,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of work in St. Paul-Minneapolis to bring in those communities that are open for a voice, especially around safety and security…. The narrative of defunding the police and all those things, it’s just not the majority of the people.”

Koran said Carnahan is using the position as a springboard to running for office again, or potentially a national job in Washington, D.C. 

“The chair appears to be doing everything in any way possible to get to DC,” he said. “We’ve got to remove that because it has to be, ‘Are we focused on what’s best for Minnesota?’”

Among Koran’s backers are Beihoffer, the former RNC Committeewoman, who said in an email to activists: “The time has come to elect a chair who can DO THE JOB.”

Similarly, Barb Sutter, RNC Committeewoman, told party activists that she endorsed Koran, saying “this is a time for a change in leadership.” In a lengthy email, she said Carnahan used fear and intimidation to silence critics, a charge Carnahan denies.

Koran pledged to be more transparent about the party’s finances and pushed back against Carnahan’s criticisms that he would be less effective because he also serves as a state lawmaker. 

Carnahan also runs a small business and has similar outside obligations, he said. And, he said he plans to reduce turnover among state party staff so day-to-day operations are overseen by an executive director, while he focuses on other responsibilities including fundraising and candidate recruitment.

“It’s really about transparency, accountability and having somebody who understands the entire political spectrum as I do,” he said.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.